Rookie tackle Anthony Davis was sitting on a low stool in front of his locker Tuesday, talking to reporters with a towel draped across the appropriate area when, about two questions into the interview, his 323 pounds suddenly toppled backward and off the stool.
There was a split-second of concern, but Davis quickly erupted into squeals of high-pitched laughter. “That’s a blooper, right?” he said.
Yes, and probably not the last for him or any other NFL rookie. Davis and guard Mike Iupati arrived in Santa Clara a week after the draft with more than individual expectations. As a duo they are supposed to help reshape the 49ers’ offense, making it stronger, tougher and better able to protect quarterback Alex Smith.
First, of course, they’ll have to crack the starting lineup.
The 49ers conducted four days of voluntary practices this week, and both rookies were relegated to second-team status, Davis at right tackle and Iupati at left guard. Coach Mike Singletary’s message was clear: Nobody is handing these kids anything. They’ll have to earn their spots.
“Just because we drafted a guy in the first round, we’re not going to bring him in and put him in as a starter right away,” Singletary said Monday, the first day of OTAs. “I want to make sure, for both of those guys, that we really listen to them. When they get out here, they’re going to dictate, they’re going to tell us they’re ready.”
And really, they’re probably not, at least not yet. Iupati didn’t exactly face elite competition at Idaho. Davis’ opponents at Rutgers were a bit higher on the food chain, but he was considered something of a raw prospect heading into the draft and played in a laterally oriented zone blocking scheme, a contrast to the 49ers’ system. Neither was ready to walk in and dominate.
“Coming in, it was just like first day of school,” Davis said. “Got the little jitters. But once you get in the flow of it, it’s a lot better.”
“Physicalness is there. Mentally it’s there,” Iupati said. “Just got to get used to the veterans and the guys that I play next to, and the communication level.”
As Singletary put it: “More than anything right now, it’s the learning curve. It’s learning all of the little details that come with the position when they’re pulling, the protection – which is a big part of it – just making sure they’re comfortable and we don’t put them in a position that they feel pressure or anything else. I feel very confident in the guys we had last year to continue to get better, continue to compete. We’ll let the natural thing happen as it comes.”
Davis admitted that conditioning is one of his challenges right now. When the young players met for rookie camp three weeks ago, he bowed out of the final drills because he was gassed. He made it to the finish line this week, but fell behind when the team ran from sideline to sideline after practice.
Davis said he’s feeling a little stronger every day. “You don’t really look for it to be easier, but you can get further before you’re dead tired,” he noted. “It’s a new limit you set for yourself.”
Iupati, an impressive physical specimen, may be a little more NFL-ready than Davis. The toughest task for him right now may be practicing without smacking anyone.
“That’s the only thing,” he said. “It’s hard. I mean, I can’t really come off and try to hit the guy or put a shoulder into him or stuff like that – or a helmet. But it’s all technique. The coaches emphasize technique so I just gotta work on my technique.”
It’s hard for an offensive lineman to really stand out in non-contact drills, but Iupati and Davis come pretty close. Asked for their impressions, left tackle Joe Staley and running back Anthony Dixon spat out the same three words: “They’re big dudes.”
That they are. Davis is listed as 6-foot-5, 323 pounds. Iupati is 6-5, 331, and both stand out even among the gargantuans of the offensive line.
“They look like they’re gonna move the pile, so I’m a get behind ‘em and push,” said Dixon, himself a rookie. “I talked to ‘em. We got a good relationship. We know we’re here for one goal, that’s to win the Super Bowl, and that’s what we’re gonna work towards.”
Not surprisingly, Davis and Iupati are already forming a bond. Taken within a span of six picks, they will be discussed and analyzed as a package deal for years to come, and they will experience many of their pressures, setbacks and accomplishments together.
”Mike’s my boy,” Davis added. “Like we go over our plays and stuff, and just talk about the daily things we go through being a rookie, like getting a Gatorade for the guys, stuff like that.”
“Our relationship is pretty good,” Iupati said. “He’s a very respectful person, a very humble person. I like that about him. Just keep working hard together and stay focused.”
Interacting with the 49ers’ veterans could be more awkward – especially with left guard David Baas and right tackle Adam Snyder, the two players whose playing time is most immediately threatened by the rookies’ presence. But Snyder insisted there is no conflict.
“I give him all the tips that guys gave me,” he said of Davis. “When I came here I was a rookie and we had Jonas Jennings who was competing, and Kwame Harris who was competing. I learned from them. It’s not his fault. He’s here to work hard and we’re glad to have him, so I’m gonna give him the pointers that I can to help the team win. I don’t get into the whole ‘they drafted a guy that plays my position.’ I come here to work.”
Baas and Snyder remain with the first team for now, but both know the realities of NFL business. Davis and Iupati are being paid too much to linger on the bench for long. And even while respecting their elders, the new guys are pawing at the ground and eager for action.
“I’m in the second group now,” Iupati said. “But like I say, it’s just repetition. I need repetition and get the feel for things. I know that once we put on pads, hopefully that will show my physicalness and let them know I’m trying to get a spot.”
Davis, too, makes no attempt to disguise his hunger for first-team reps.
“Yeah, I can’t wait,” he said. “That’s what I’m working for.”